It is recognised that intensive and targeted early childhood services have the potential to significantly enhance the life chances of many children. Investment in early childhood care and education benefits not only the individual child but also the wider economy. In recognition of this, considerable funding is already provided by my Department through the provision of three childcare support programmes - the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) programme, the Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS) programme, and the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme - to assist parents in accessing quality and affordable childcare.
The CCS programme provides funding to community-based childcare services to enable them to provide childcare at reduced rates to parents in receipt of social welfare payments or on low to middle incomes. For the purpose of the CCS programme, eligibility is determined by reference to a range of means-tested allowances and payments including receipt of a social welfare payment, Family Income Supplement (FIS) and qualification for a medical or GP visit card. Eligibility for a GP visit card is based on net income and takes account of outgoings such as rent and mortgage repayments and other expenses including childcare costs and travelling expenses. As a result, low and middle income working parents may qualify for support. Parents who qualify for the top rate of subvention under the programme receive €95 per week towards full-day childcare costs.
The CETS programme provides €145 towards the weekly cost of full time childcare places to participating childcare services for trainees and students who are deemed qualified by FÁS or the VEC. Students on part-time courses are funded on a pro rata basis.
The ECCE programme provides one free pre-school year to all eligible children in the year before commencing primary school. Children aged between 3 years 2 months and 4 years 6 months at 1 September in the relevant year qualify for a maximum of 15 hours per week free pre-school provision over a 38 week period. This is a universal programme to which all children have access.
In 2012, the total expenditure by my Department on these three programmes is expected to be in the region of €240 million. These programmes have been maintained despite the ongoing need to reduce Government expenditure and they represent a significant investment in supporting parents with the cost of childcare.
You may also be aware that, as part of Budget 2013, I announced with my colleague the Minister for Social Protection, a joint school age childcare initiative which will provide further additional support to both the community and private childcare sector. This initiative, which represents an annual investment of €14 million, will provide important support to parents in low income families wishing to take up employment, along with ensuring that quality after-school care is in place to support children's development.
My Department has begun work on Ireland’s first Early Years Strategy which is an innovative and dynamic blueprint for the future development of Ireland’s Early Years sector aimed at providing a coherent approach to seeking to improve the lives of children from birth to age six. This Strategy, which is expected to be completed in the first half of 2013, will cover a range of issues affecting children in their first years of life such as health, family support, learning and development, and care and education and will identify the structures and policies needed to improve early years experience in Ireland.